What Is a Social Psychologist?

A social psychologist is a psychologist that studies human behavior within a social context. The focus of study may be related to perception of social conditions, as well as actual social environments. Many individuals specializing in social psychology conduct research in laboratories or at institutions of higher learning. Others work as consultants for businesses, government organizations and non-profit groups. Some have doctoral degrees in psychology while others, especially those in industrial-organizational psychology, hold only a master’s degree.

What Is Social Psychology

Social psychology in its current form developed in the United States at the beginning of the 20th century. However, the foundations for the study and practice of this social science were laid by philosophers across Europe in previous centuries. During the 1930s, many Gestalt psychologists who migrated to the U.S. after fleeing Germany began to develop the study of social psychology as they researched perception, cognition and attitudes, as well as small group interactions. Later, Americans began to study concepts such as:

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  • Group think
  • Persuasion
  • Propaganda
  • Obedience to authority
  • Cognitive dissonance
  • The bystander effect
  • Aggression
  • Racism
  • Gender issues

From the 1950s to the early 1980s, research in social psychology was embroiled in a series of ethical debates. Infamous experiments like the Milgram shock experiment and Stanford prison experiment produced results that caused psychologists to reevaluate their understanding of human behavior in social contexts. By the 1980s and 1990s, the field of social psychology had matured and more ethical research methods were established. With the advent of electronic communication and social media, research topics and opportunities in social psychology have expanded significantly.

What Jobs Are Available in Social Psychology

Unlike psychotherapists and counseling psychologists, most social psychologists do not work in a clinical setting. Instead, they often conduct research for a laboratory, college or university. Many also teach, however, unlike most individuals with advanced psychology degrees, they may teach in business departments, law schools, marketing and other academic departments in addition to schools of psychology. Likewise, social psychologists often work in places outside research facilities and schools. They may serve as consultants for political campaigns or work in the advertising industry. Many work as industrial-occupational psychologists and help employers improve worker morale and workplace environments. Others work in education or develop on-the-job training programs focused on productivity and safety.

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Although social psychology is a relatively new field, the career possibilities for qualified psychologists are extensive. New technologies and the expansion of social media continue to create new areas for research. Advancements in industry create more opportunities for social psychologists to help employers improve productivity during work hours as well as employee satisfaction and retention. If you enjoy learning what makes people tick, a career in psychology may be right for you. If you have a specific interest in social influences on human behavior and the way individuals react in groups or under peer pressure, you should consider a career as a social psychologist.